Will Cricket Australia ever regain the public's trust?

Tuesday, 01 October 2019


    Eighteen months since Cricket Australia's ball tampering scandal in South Africa, the new CEO and chair outline how they are working to restore faith in the game through better governance. Ashley Gray writes.

    Kevin Roberts normally drives to work, but on the first day after the 2018 ball-tampering scandal in Cape Town, South Africa, he caught the train. “I was carrying a Cricket Australia (CA) backpack,” recalls the CA CEO. “I found, subconsciously, I had turned that backpack around so other people on the train couldn’t see the logo. For the first time, I found myself unable to be proud of the sport I loved.”

    Roberts, a former NSW Sheffield Shield batsman and lifelong cricket devotee, wasn’t alone in feeling devastated by the revelations of “Sandpapergate”. A nation of cricket tragics wept. Premeditated illegal ball tampering, endorsed and encouraged by the test captain and his deputy — and caught on camera for a shocked sporting world to digest — shone a light on the “winning without counting the costs” culture of Australian cricket. Key to the controversy was that cricket is more than a game, it’s a $400m business (2017–18 total revenue).

    On-field aggression and combativeness — the so-called “Australian way” — dated back to the eras of Ian Chappell in the 1970s and Steve Waugh in the 1990s, but had been, for the most part, successfully self-policed, with a general agreement never to “cross the line” — even though consensus outside Australia was that “the line” was quite often crossed.

    During the heated test series in South Africa, it wasn’t so much that captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and Cameron Bancroft had crossed that line, it was more they didn’t seem to know where it was, or if it even existed anymore. Australian cricket’s moral compass was askew.

    The ramifications were swift as CA scrambled to repair the public’s trust. The board slugged Smith and Warner with 12-month bans, and a nine-month suspension for Bancroft. Coach Darren Lehmann quit amid claims he’d enabled a “win at all costs” culture. The carnage wasn’t confined to the dressing room. Fingers were pointed at Cricket Australia and the board, which, it was claimed, was guilty of tolerating the team’s worst excesses.

    When Smith later revealed to Fox Sports that then CEO James Sutherland had told him, “We don’t pay you to play, we pay you to win,” it seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears. Board member Bob Every AO FAICD quit, citing irreconcilable differences with then chair David Peever. “I opposed David Peever being re-elected,” he says. “Being a lone voice, I resigned on principle.”

    Former Australia captain Mark Taylor joined him later in the year, along with fellow board member Tony Harrison. The long-serving Sutherland, now tethered to a discredited ethos, also called it a day.

    The public soul searching wasn’t over. Under pressure to drive change, Peever announced an independent review into the organisational culture of the game to be undertaken by not-for-profit organisation The Ethics Centre.

    It turned out to be one of the biggest kicks up the backside in Australian corporate history. Conducted by the centre’s executive director, Simon Longstaff, it found Cricket Australia to be “arrogant and controlling”, treated its players, who behaved as if they were in a “gilded bubble”, as “commodities”, and “failure to create and support a culture in which the will to win was balanced by an equal commitment to moral courage and ethical restraint”. The review also accused Cricket Australia of “bullying” people it disagreed with. Proffering 42 recommendations for change within the organisation, many relating to corporate governance, the review was damning. Peever left his post within a week of its release. So, too, did high-performance unit manager Pat Howard, and general manager of broadcasting, digital media and commercial Ben Amarfio, architect of the sport’s record $1.2b TV deal, who was escorted from CA’s Melbourne head office.

    Righting the wrongs

    If 2018 was Australian cricket’s annus horribilis, it was also a time of renewal and refocus. Part of that renewal involved Roberts, who was promoted into Sutherland’s vacant CEO position, and Earl Eddings GAICD, former president of North Melbourne Cricket Club, who became the new chair. Eddings had served on the board since 2008 and Roberts also had board history, but was best known to the public for handling the protracted, and at times rancorous, player contract negotiations with the Australian Cricketers’ Association (ACA) — a series of standoffs in 2017 that did neither side any credit.

    Their combined love for cricket and deep desire to steer the game to a higher moral ground, restoring the public’s faith in a sport that once defined the nation, helped them navigate through the most difficult period in Australian cricket history.

    In hindsight, Roberts admits the last year and a half — the review in particular — served to shock the organisation out of its comfort zone. It also forced him to lift his game. Playing professional cricket in the public spotlight had hardened him to criticism, but none of his previous management roles with sporting apparel brands Adidas and 2XU had prepared him for the intense public scrutiny that comes with one of the most high-profile executive roles in Australia.

    “My take on the review was it was referring to the real experiences people had with Cricket Australia,” says Roberts. “It’s not for us to dispute how we’ve made them feel in those interactions. It provided a great opportunity for the organisation to reset.”

    As he had sought to do when the sandpaper scandal unfolded — holding regular meetings at Cricket Australia’s headquarters in Jolimont Street, Melbourne, to reassure staff they were valued and in no way responsible for the events in South Africa — Roberts began the push to make CA a more inclusive and empathetic organisation. No longer would it “privilege combativeness over collaboration” as The Ethics Centre maintained it had. “I came in during a period when it was really important to rebuild trust,” he says. “I’m proud we are now committed to being a purpose-led organisation. We are serious about living up to the expectations we have of ourselves and the community’s expectations.”

    cricket australia chair and ceo

    Restoring trust

    The term “engaging stakeholders” is possibly the most overused phrase in the corporate world. But Eddings knew it was essential to reinvigorate faith in cricket’s broad church and reconnect with everyone from the ACA and state associations to sponsors, the media and grassroots clubs. That would mean the board becoming more operational and taking a greater interest in management’s progress. “The mantra we have had is, ‘Put cricket back into cricket’,” says Eddings. “Making sure our stakeholders are being heard and us being far more respectful to them. Making sure our volunteers, our grades, people who play cricket around Australia... OK, these guys are listening, they’re authentic and have the best interests of cricket at heart.”

    For Roberts, the blurring of the lines between board and management was a necessary development. “As you would appreciate after the events of last year, the board needed to know the organisation was operating in the optimal way and genuinely changing. As CEO, or in a management position, it would be easy to push back on that.”

    The relationship between the board and executive is a lot closer — they continue to have a three-day brainstorming session every year — and while the partnership between Roberts and Eddings may not be quite as fruitful as the 1960s test batting partnership of Bob Simpson and Bill Lawry just yet, their respect for each other is the cornerstone of the new administration.

    “The word I’d use to sum up the relationship between Earl and myself would be ‘trust’,” says Roberts, who converses daily with Eddings. “When you have trust, you can address all the things you disagree on. But you’re doing it in an environment where you know it’s about working with each other in the best interests of the organisation.”

    The board is now also a tighter unit. It needed to be after the strain of Sandpapergate and the falling out between Every and Peever. “There is more teamwork now,” says Michelle Tredenick FAICD, a Cricket Australia non-executive director since 2015 and chair of its new people, culture and ethics committee, which includes Eddings. “You come through a crisis together and build a lot of bonds and trust. Earl is very focused on our relationship with our stakeholder and we are much more involved with all of our partners.”

    Eddings refuses to be drawn on the argy-bargy that dogged the board at different points last year, but acknowledges it was a time when tough decisions had to be made. “We’ve had a 30-40 per cent turnover in our board and probably more in our management team,” he says. “We made some really hard calls. There were changes at management level that were difficult, but necessary. You build relationships with people, but sometimes you have to make a call that best suits the organisation.”

    A key development arising from CA’s annual brainstorming is that every paper submitted to the board must now outline risk and ethical concerns. Because lack of ethics was at the core of the Longstaff review’s scathing critique of the organisation. Its primary recommendation is the establishment of an ethics commission, with members nominated by CA and agreed on by state associations, the ACA and Cricket Umpires Australia to “hold all participants in Australian cricket accountable to the ethical foundations of the game”. Neither Roberts or Eddings want it to be a “tick and flick” formality exercise, and the chair says the first meeting of the Australian Cricket Council in a few months — another Longstaff recommendation — will determine its reach and composition.

    Eddings notes executive remuneration will continue to be assessed 70 per cent on performance and 30 per cent on values. A new online system will enable stakeholder feedback on behaviours.

    Change on the way

    Cricket Australia says it is busy addressing 41 of the 42 review recommendations. Excusing star players from Twenty20 internationals to play Sheffield Shield and grade cricket proved impractical. Some recommendations include tying a “character and behaviour” clause to the annual Allan Border Medal award and senior management receiving additional training to develop communication skills. But none of it will count for anything if the men’s test team is still trash talking opponents on the pitch.

    Under coach Justin Langer — whose appointment was questioned by some who thought he had contributed his fair share to the sledging culture CA is trying to moderate — code-of-conduct breaches have dropped to zero and the board has licensed selectors to use character as well as performance as criteria for selection. A review led by former test opening batsman Rick McCosker led to a players’ pact. Together with the concept of “elite mateship”, scoffed at by the grizzled old guard, it has helped reinforce the commitment to a new “Australian way”: less yappy mongrel, and more stoic bulldog.

    “In the context of the men’s test team, we have got myself, Justin Langer and [captain] Tim Paine,” says Roberts. “I can safely say we’re all very strongly aligned. Our non-negotiable expectation of ourselves and the players is to compete with respect on every ball.”

    After the drawn-out pay dispute over revenue sharing soured relations with the ACA, the Longstaff report made a point of instructing the warring parties to “establish a constructive working relationship”. Roberts and ACA president Greg Dyer were at the coalface of those difficult contract negotiations, but with goodwill on both sides, the two organisations are now focusing on common goals. “It’s very positive,” says Dyer. “Earl and I talk once every three to four weeks. We meet at board level and if there are issues bubbling, I’ll text or email him. Previously, interaction between the boards was pretty much non-existent.”

    A work in progress

    The rehabilitation of Cricket Australia hasn’t been without its hitches. Recently, Sydney Morning Herald journalist Malcolm Knox accused the organisation of inflating participation figures to attract sponsorship dollars, while club membership was left to flounder. Roberts issued a public rebuttal, but the perception remained of an accountability problem — a reminder there is still work to be done to address issues of transparency. It also raised questions in the wider cricket community about whether CA was fair dinkum in its commitment to change.

    “Our key learning out of that is we need to be more specific in terms of how numbers are counted,” says Roberts. “It’s on us to make sure we’re clearer.”

    Eighteen months after Cape Town, both executives are satisfied CA is getting its house in order — but not complacent. “With culture, it’s something you’ve got to keep working at, keep your eye on, keep nurturing,” says Eddings, who has ensured he will remain Cricket Australia chair for the next three years by taking one of the independent director roles on the board. “It’s not: we’ve done the ethics report, so now we’re right.”

    Roberts concurs: “We have made a commitment that it is not a box-ticking exercise. We say we can focus on this recommendation, be true to it and at the same time take it a lot further. I’m really proud of the way the team carries itself on and off the field.” It’s safe to say his backpack is turned the right way around now.

    Tumultuous times

    Charting the events that led to Cricket Australia’s reinvention.

    australian cricket team

    August 2017 A new pay deal (memorandum of understanding) is reached with the Australian Cricketers’ Association that retains the revenue-sharing model Cricket Australia had wanted to scrap.

    24 March 2018 During the third test against South Africa in Cape Town, opening batsman Cameron Bancroft is caught on camera tampering with the ball using sandpaper to gain an unfair advantage. The strategy, conceived by Australia vice-captain David Warner and condoned by captain Steve Smith, provokes the biggest scandal in Australian cricket history.

    28 March 2018 A Cricket Australia investigation leads to the banning of Smith and Warner for one year each, and Bancroft for nine months. Smith is barred from captaining Australia for a further 12 months; Warner for the rest of his career.

    29 March 2018 Darren Lehmann resigns as Australia coach in the face of mounting public pressure. He is widely viewed as having overseen the aggressive “win at all costs” ethos within the Australian side. In a teary press conference, he concedes, “I’m ultimately responsible for the culture of the team.”

    6 April 2018 Cricket Australia chairman David Peever announces a review into cultural, organisational and governance issues in cricket. It is to be carried out by not-for-profit organisation The Ethics Centre, with a players’ charter to be drawn up through consultations with cricketers, led by 1970s test batsman Rick McCosker.

    3 May 2018 Former test opening batsman Justin Langer is appointed coach in all three cricket formats — test, 50-over and Twenty20. He promises to promote the concept of “elite mateship, elite honesty and elite humility”.

    4 May 2018 Board member Bob Every AO FAICD resigns after falling out with chairman David Peever. He is replaced by former Western Australian Cricket Association chair Dr Lachlan Henderson.

    25 May 2018 Kevin Roberts, a one-time board member, is promoted to chief operating officer, and is viewed as likely successor to CEO James Sutherland.

    6 June 2018 Sutherland quits as Cricket Australia CEO after 17 years. Peever thanks him for his service and claims, “The game has never been in a stronger position.”

    2 Oct 2018 Roberts is appointed new CEO and vows to “build trust right across the Australian cricket community”.

    25 Oct 2018 Long-serving board member Tony Harrison quits. He is replaced by Tasmanian Cricket Association deputy chair Paul Green MAICD.

    28 Oct 2018 New test captain Tim Paine unveils the players’ pact, which declares: “We want to make all Australians proud. Compete with us. Smile with us. Fight on with us. Dream with us.” He admits test cricketers had become “wrapped up in our self-importance”.

    29 Oct 2018 The Ethics Centre review, conducted by Simon Longstaff, paints a damning portrait of Cricket Australia, calling it “arrogant and controlling” and blaming it, as much as the players, for events in South Africa. Its 42 recommendations concerning governance and culture conclude by saying Cricket Australia “does not live up to its values and principles”.

    1 Nov 2018 Under siege, chair David Peever quits. The previous week he had been re-elected for another three years.

    5 Nov 2018 After 13 years as a director, ex-Australia captain Mark Taylor exits the board, complaining that the six months following “Sandpapergate” had been taxing.

    27 Nov 2018 Earl Eddings GAICD replaces Peever as chair. A Cricket Australia board director since 2008, he says he is committed to making “cricket stronger and a game we can all be proud of”.

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